Who Should Rule?

People involved in politics often focus on getting their party elected. Their primary goal is to get in power. Once they are in power, they plan to implement their policies which will improve the country. When in power, they also take steps to stay in power.

Karl Popper identified this attitude as the "Who should rule?" approach to politics1. He pointed out that it is a bad question which seeks an authoritarian answer. Actually, rulers are only a means to an end. What we need are good policies, whether that comes from one ruler, or many rulers in succession, or no rulers.

What we should focus on instead of who gets to rule is creating a system in which errors are corrected. That means that bad policies can be changed and bad rulers removed from power. And both of those should be possible without violence.

By focussing on gaining power, politicians neglect their own fallibility. They aren't putting enough effort into error correction. Finding and fixing errors in one's views even gets called "flip flopping" and is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. Many people want to elect a guy who's confident that he knows best, and see someone who carefully analyzes his own policies for mistakes as weak and unsure.

The confidence — or arrogance — to think one knows best means a low amount of error correction. The humility — or wisdom — to recognize one's fallibility and ignorance, in the tradition of Socrates (the man who knows he does not know) allows for more error correction.

Mistakes are inevitable, including political mistakes. We need politicians who vigilantly watch out for mistakes and try to improve. And we need a political system that worries more about making it easy to correct mistakes than about who gets to make the decisions. Elections should be seen more as an opportunity to kick out a guy who is doing a bad job than an opportunity to elect someone who will definitely do a good job. There is no way to know how good a job a new candidate will do, but if we have criticisms of the old approach then electing someone who sees what went wrong and has ideas about how to do better may help.

Political parties put a lot of effort into fund raising and into rallying the base of people who don't need to be convinced in order to support them, just energized. And they put a lot of effort into short ads and sound bytes without substantial content. They ought to spend more effort considering the merits and demerits of their own policies and debating amongst themselves about what would be best for the country, and also debating amiably and constructively with members of other parties.

Footnotes

1 The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, volume 1, chapter 7, page 120

(Did you like this? Click for a list of all the essays.)

By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!